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How fighting big retail helped a N.C. community organize around energy efficiency

In some ways, the success of the home energy efficiency project in this corner of Carrboro, North Carolina, began with the failure of Family Dollar. 

In 2015, residents stopped the retail chain’s plan to pave over a stream to build a store on the edge of their neighborhood, about two miles from the state’s flagship public university in Chapel Hill.

The experience helped people understand the power of collective action, said Tamara Sanders, a key organizer in the fight. “Coming together as a community,” she said, “pushing back.” 

When Sanders learned the county was offering grants to weatherize and preserve affordable housing, with a focus on racial equity, she knew she and her neighbors could pull together again to make change.   

“As a single White woman, [I] was not going to be a good candidate for this,” she acknowledged. But her community was. “This is a historically Black neighborhood.” 

Sanders found a company eager to do the retrofit work and asked the nonprofit North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association to administer the program. It was an easy sell.

“Part of our mission is clean energy, accessible to all,” said Daniel Pate, the group’s energy program manager. “Often, clean energy is viewed as not accessible, but what’s overlooked is energy efficiency for those facing high energy burdens.” 

With $90,000 from Orange County’s Community Climate Action Grant Program and another $10,000 in-kind from the Coastal Federal Credit Union, the Neighborhood Energy Resiliency Project was born. 

By the time work wraps up this summer, the project will have benefited nearly two dozen mostly low-income households in the 15-block territory. They’re getting insulation, improved attic seals, and other home improvements at no cost to them — reducing energy waste and lowering monthly bills. 

Like Orange County, dozens of communities around the state have climate or renewable energy targets, and advocates want the program here to serve as a role model for them. 

“We’re talking about the ability to replicate this,” said Dr. Rita Joyner, senior advisor the Sustainable Energy Association, “this has become a positive case study.” 

An estimated 1.4 million people in the state live with unaffordable energy costs, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, largely due to energy inefficiency. Decades of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies mean impoverished communities and people of color, especially, tend to live in manufactured homes or those built before the advent of energy conservation codes. They’re also more likely to rent, while those who own lack the capital for major upgrades like new appliances and windows. 

The pandemic deepened these disparities, leading Congress to nearly double weatherization assistance funds flowing down to the states. North Carolina’s annual share has now risen to about $40 million. Yet distributing it comes with a host of challenges, from identifying and building trust with those in need to recruiting and training workers to perform the services. Less than 3,000 households are apt to benefit each year. 

Duke Energy, the state’s predominant monopoly utility, has its own programs to help customers make energy efficiency improvements, but those, too, reach a vanishingly small fraction of those who stand the most to gain. According to a report to regulators, less than one-tenth of one percent of eligible low-income customers have benefited from Duke’s Weatherization Program and Equipment Replacement Program since its inception. 

Alfred Brown, left, and Eddie Hernandez of Energy Reduction Specialists prepare to add attic insulation to Mae McLendon’s home in Carrboro, North Carolina. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

Keys to success

The Carrboro project, by contrast, is reaching about a fifth of the 120 homes it targeted. The Sustainable Energy Association attributes this effectiveness to several factors — starting with Sanders.

“When we did the canvassing, whether she was with us or not,” said Joyner, “she was able to put her reputation on the line. What was successful was to have someone in the neighborhood who could vouch for the fact that this is a good program.” 

Close coordination with the weatherization agency that serves Orange County was another key. By working with Central Piedmont Community Action, Pate’s team identified homes in the project territory that had sought federal weatherization assistance but couldn’t qualify because of urgent repair needs like a broken door or leaky roof.

Last fall, $60,000 in federal pandemic relief funds were leveraged from the Department of Environmental Quality to pay for the necessary fixes at six homes. 

“There’s just a long list — at every weatherization agency — of homes that can’t get services until they get these structural issues addressed,” Pate said. Once they were, “it was a one-two punch, double impact: first structural issues, then energy efficiency.” 

The company performing the home upfits also makes a difference. Greensboro-based Energy Reduction Specialists has been doing energy performance contracting since 2010, said company vice president Paul Swenson.

“There’s a big need to have good contractors,” said Swenson, who has a background in home repairs for low-income households. “Programs don’t succeed with bad contractors.” 

Too often, Swenson said, specialty contractors insist their singular product — an HVAC system, say, or a window — will solve customers’ problems no matter what. By contrast, his company takes a “whole house” approach to energy efficiency.

“It’s not just overpriced new windows and poorly installed installation,” he said. “It’s air sealing. It’s duct sealing. It’s ventilation. It’s moisture control. It’s comfort. There’s so much more to it than what people typically think of.” 

Energy Reduction Specialists is also willing to forego or delay business if there’s a problem another contractor should fix first, Swenson said. “We’re willing to say, ‘You should spend your money with somebody else.’ And there’s a lot of contractors that just won’t do that.” 

Even with the Carrboro project, where customers are getting the services for free, the philosophy is still important. “We want to make sure that the work that we do through this program in Orange County is the right work to be done,” Swenson said, “and it’s done efficiently and effectively — so that it’s an easy decision to get more money to do more work to help more people.”

Tamara Sanders, left, and Anissa McLendon in front of McLendon’s home in Carrboro, North Carolina. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

‘We try and look out for each other’

Still, perhaps the biggest factor in the success of the project is the tight-knit nature of the community itself.  

“I love this neighborhood,” said Anissa McLendon, who lives adjacent to the wooded lot where the Family Dollar was proposed, in a bright purple house that once belonged to her grandmother. 

With Sanders, McLendon was another leader in the campaign against the store, hosting meetings every Saturday to plot and act. Residents unite around other common purposes, too, like arranging for food and flowers when someone dies or gets sick. 

“A lot of people come home, and they don’t know what’s going on with the neighbor to the right nor the left — and they don’t care,” McLendon said. “But people on our street do care about each other.”  

McLendon was one of Sanders’ first recruits. She notified her neighbors with email blasts and by word of mouth. She enrolled in the program herself – helping to cut her Duke Energy bill — and got her mother, who lives next door, signed up as well. 

“I am appreciative of what I got,” McLendon said. “I’m appreciative of everything in both these houses.”

With some wealthier people slowly moving to the community, existing residents also had a powerful motivation to participate in the program, Joyner said.  

“These are people who are committed to this community. But gentrification is real,” Joyner said. Long-term savings on energy bills might help existing residents “maintain the community,” she said, “and be able to afford the property tax increases that come about.”

The final ingredient for the project’s success was the grant itself. In Orange County, that money came from a quarter-cent property tax increase commissioners adopted in 2019.

But the 2021 federal infrastructure law could provide another funding source: block grants. The state’s 37 largest cities and counties were awarded a total of $6.1 million for energy efficiency and conservation projects. Another $3 million was allocated to the state of North Carolina to funnel to smaller communities. 

Hopefully, advocates say, the availability of funds and the Orange County project’s success will inspire other communities.

“Ideally it’s a concept that other local governments can adopt,” Pate said. “We were able to show that this design works.”

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